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Published: Monday, 3/16/2009

2 nuclear plants get favorable reviews

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Regulators cite a failure in 2002 at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station as an example for the need for greater accountability. Regulators cite a failure in 2002 at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station as an example for the need for greater accountability.
LEE MERKLE Enlarge

Although Davis-Besse and Fermi 2 fared well in their 2008 performance reviews issued earlier this month, both Toledo-area nuclear plants continue to have a hard time winning over critics.

•Davis-Besse's tarnished legacy continues to be an anecdote for the nation's top nuclear regulators, seven years after FirstEnergy Corp. nearly let its reactor head burst, causing a breach that would have allowed radioactive steam to form in the containment building that protects the nuclear reactor. The last such accident occurred in 1979 with the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island.

Two Nuclear Regulatory Commission board members last week used Davis-Besse to illustrate the need for more safety while demanding greater accountability from nuclear industry officials.

Members of the largest conference in NRC history - one that drew 2,700 nuclear executives and others from across the world - were directed to a model of the near-rupture that was on display in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md.

w Five anti-nuclear groups, unimpressed by Fermi 2's solid performance last year, followed through with their request for an intervention hearing aimed at blocking plans DTE Energy might have of building Fermi 3.

The NRC is reviewing DTE's

application for what would be a $10 billion plant, although the utility has not committed itself to building it.

The Davis-Besse and Fermi complexes are along western Lake Erie, each about 30 miles from Toledo.

FirstEnergy and DTE, their respective owner-operators, were among several in the nation the NRC praised in letters this month for operating their nuclear plants "in a manner that preserved public health and safety and fully met all cornerstone objectives" in 2008.

Davis-Besse's performance was solid enough that the NRC said its scope this year will be limited to routine baseline inspections, except for a review of an annual, third-party assessment of the station's safety culture/safety conscious work environment.

That was one of the conditions the NRC set for FirstEnergy before allowing Davis-Besse to resume operation in 2004 after a record two-year outage.

The near-rupture of Davis-Besse's reactor head figured prominently into a speech NRC Commissioner Gregory B. Jaczko delivered at the agency's conference Wednesday, as well as one NRC Commissioner Peter B. Lyons had delivered the day before.

"When we think about the lessons learned from Davis-Besse, we think of incremental improvements to ensure we do a better job of inspecting and ensuring regulatory compliance. But the real lesson of Davis-Besse or even [Three Mile Island] is that we must never get complacent," Mr. Jaczko said.

Mr. Lyons closed his speech by noting the model of Davis-Besse's reactor head that the NRC had on display.

"That model reminds me of the importance of questioning, listening to, understanding, and unflinchingly exposing the truth, even when it hurts, and especially when we can learn from it - all key elements of a strong safety culture," he told attendees.

The Davis-Besse saga has factored into other annual NRC conferences, at least one of which featured results from an inspection team from Britain that studied the plant's workplace.

The NRC said on its Web site that its conferences have drawn representatives from 26 countries.

Fermi 2 had issues in human performance a year ago, but the NRC said it now considers those resolved.

"We have concluded that changes in procedures and policies, along with the emphasis through the management and supervisor levels on the use of human performance tools, has improved human performance at Fermi," according to a letter from Cynthia D. Pederson, division of reactor projects director for the agency's Midwest regional office near Chicago.

DTE's application for Fermi 3 is one of more than two dozen the NRC has under review nationally. Each review is expected to take about four years.

Five anti-nuclear groups, including activists from the Toledo area, southeastern Michigan, and southwestern Ontario, announced last week they had jointly filed a 145-page objection to DTE's Fermi 3 application, citing 14 legal concerns.

They took issue with a DTE environmental report and cited a potential for more radioactive, toxic, and thermal damages to Lake Erie's western basin, an area which scientists have described as the warmest, shallowest, and most biologically productive part of the Great Lakes.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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